by Gus Marshall
The Royal Room dinner crowd eagerly awaited the evening’s performance. A couple minutes past the seven-thirty start time, a tall man with glasses took the stage and grabbed hold of a microphone. He introduced himself as Alex Guilbert, the organizer and producer of Piano Starts Here, a bimonthly piano-focused performance featuring the eclectic works of influential pianists over the past century.
This evening’s theme was the work of four highly esteemed pianists and composers from jazz’s Golden Age: Duke Ellington, Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller. All these men were masters of a complicated style of jazz piano born out of ragtime, called Harlem Stride Piano.
Commonly referred to as “stride piano” or “stride,” it is a unique style of playing requiring the left hand to keep a four-beat pulse with a single bass note, octave, major seventh or major tenth interval on the first and third beats, and a chord on the second and fourth beat. This is while simultaneously playing and improvising on the melody with the right hand. In other words, it is extremely challenging to perform.
“I think stride piano is the highest achievement in music,” Guilbert declared before opening on the keys himself. He continued by expressing his reverence for the phenomenal virtuosos responsible for the extremely demanding art-form: “I’m gonna’ try my best to pay homage to these master musicians.”
Jacob Zimmerman, an accomplished young veteran of the Northwest jazz scene supported Guilbert with versatile reed work. Zimmerman’s immense talents were on full display: he balanced sultry saxophone riffs, heads, and solos with impeccable tonality and intriguing fills, true to the style of vintage traditional jazz clarinet accompaniment.
Yvonne Williams, a Columbia City resident enjoying her first experience at The Royal Room with Jacob Zimmerman, shared her newfound admiration of Zimmerman’s beautiful clarinet work. “Jacob made the clarinet sing,” she said.
After three commanding duets between Guilbert and Zimmerman, the latter left the stage. Guilbert pounded out an impressive solo set, primarily of James P. Johnson arrangements, illuminating his command of the material and his instrument.
Next, longtime jazz pianist Ray Skjelbred impressed the attentive audience with his precise fluidity and punctuating rhythm. His honest delivery and intentional brilliance could be heard throughout the Royal Room as he tenderly touched and teased the ivories in a manner of pure sophistication. Skjelbred, at the impressive age of 78 years, plays with conviction and provides a profound historical context to the material he covets.
“The Harlem pianists created a whole orchestral sound with their two hands. I think they were proud to develop melody, harmony and rhythm all as one instrument that could swing imaginatively and creatively,” Skjelbred said.
In response to Skjelbred, longtime South End resident Fai Coffin said she was impressed by his performance. “It was the first time I’ve seen sound become visual, I saw water, I saw deep blue night sky. And I appreciate his honesty about the historical issues,” she said.
Before the show, Guilbert spoke with the South Seattle Emerald about his musical background and his appreciation of stride piano.
Gus Marshall: Where did you grow up?
Alex Guilbert: My family moved to the Eastside from New York when I was in elementary school, been local ever since.
GM: How long have you been playing music?
AG: I started playing piano at, erm, 14 I think, after playing guitar very un-seriously for a few years.
GM: How long have you been a professional musician?
AG: The first time I got paid to play music was in the early 90s, and I probably didn’t deserve to be paid ….
GM: Who are some of your musical inspirations?
AG: The jazz musician I’ve probably listened to the most is Keith Jarrett, but other list toppers include Teddy Wilson, Paul Bley, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Earl Hines, James P. Johnson, Andrew Hill, Jan Johannson, Bill Evans, Lester Young … I could probably go on for a while here but I’ll stop. My favorite composers are Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti. And I listen to a wide variety of popular music as well … Led Zeppelin, Funkadelic, D’Angelo, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Band are maybe some who I’d consider influences.
GM: What era of jazz is your favorite?
AG: I don’t really have a favorite era. I think there’s great music, and not so great music, in each era of every type of music. I guess I have a fascination with the 20s, but I don’t listen to 20s music any more than I listen to music of any other period, so I’m not sure that fascination is musical in nature.
GM: What speaks to you about stride piano?
AG: I guess it’s the intensity of it … I mean, what those guys were doing was the highest form of human artistic achievement, and it was forged in this crucible of an ugly and oppressive culture that stacked the odds against them. That could be said for jazz in general of course, but stride is this microcosm of players who played piano as well as piano has ever been played. Listening to Fats Waller or James P. Johnson, you hear this amazing amount of rhythmic drive and technical excellence but also this subtlety—things they do with dynamics, and inner voices, that is really remarkable. Plus, it was a really intriguing time, when the great American art form was coming into maturity, and digging deep into that music gives me a connection to that.
GM: In preparation for this show what have you learned about stride piano you didn’t know before?
AG: Stride is kind of an evolution of ragtime, so the further back you go, the more remote the connection to the way one improvises in a modern context. I come from a background of modern jazz, and the stride pianist I relate to the most is Teddy Wilson probably. I’d say he’s firmly within the mature idiom of jazz piano, whereas James P. and Fats are more like “proto-jazz” in some ways. Their improvisations are not as singularly focused on melody and also happen in broader chunks. It’s like they’re assembling with bigger pieces in a way. So, that language of the transitional figures like James P. is really hard for me to learn, and it’s also hard to adapt his pieces into a more modern language.
GM: Who intrigues you most musically out the featured musicians—Fats Waller, Willie the lion Smith, Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and Luckey Roberts?
AG: Tough question, they’re all intriguing characters. Duke Ellington is probably the most so. I consider him the greatest American composer, whose influence goes far beyond jazz or piano, or even music. But they’re all fascinating, musically and otherwise.